Feeding the Homeless in Sin City

In Las Vegas, the homeless population is growing faster than the city government can feed them. Private groups have stepped in with portable soup kitchens and feeding stations in public areas, but they have encountered resistance.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Nevada remains the fastest-growing state, because every day nearly 400 people move to Las Vegas. But homelessness and hunger are also rising there. Samaritan groups try to help with free meals in parks and public spaces. Now Las Vegas -acutely aware of its tourist economy - is restricting access to food for the homeless as other cities also do.

NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES: Gail Sacko(ph) has been chased out of just about every park in Las Vegas. That's because she serves hot meals to homeless people from the back of her little gray Honda.

Ms. GAIL SACKO (Community Activist): There's a bran muffin. Help yourself.

JONES: The 55-year-old community activist says she started her portable kitchen because she was troubled by the way homeless people are being treated.

Ms. SACKO: On a daily basis, they have homeless sweeps. They push the homeless around from one part of town to the next. So they just disperse them and then they try to blame people who feed the homeless.

JONES: Sacko's been arrested and cited several times. At 7:00 a.m. this morning, she set up shop on a sidewalk, across some state government building. It's cold and windy. And about 30 people queued up for free plates of steaming bean and noodle soup.

Ms. SACKO: Half of them probably got bench warrants out for them. Just joking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SACKO: For jaywalking, or attempting to shave at the DPC. If you throw water on your face.

JONES: Jim Lens(ph) has been arrested a couple of times, down on Fremont Street. He's 53, an Air Force veteran. He hurt his back, so he can't do construction work anymore. He gets $750 a month in disability payments.

Unidentified Man: Did you get any other kinds of supports? Food stamps? Things like that?

Mr. JIM LENS (Air Force Veteran): You know, I get $10 a month in food stamps with what I make on social security. And yeah, I could go get food vouchers and stuff, but you got to have a car.

JONES: Transportation, jobs, affordable housing and food. That's what most homeless people urgently need. But increasingly, in fast-growing cities like Las Vegas, Orlando and Dallas, officials are clamping down on mobile cafeterias for the poor and homeless. They say the laws stem from plain old common sense. Take Orlando, for instance.

Ms. HEATHER ALLEBAUGH (Spokeswoman, Orlando): The ordinance isn't about banning feeding. It's actually about the proper location.

JONES: Heather Allebaugh is a spokeswoman for the city of Orlando. She says her city's laws against feeding groups of 25 people or more isn't a total ban. Homeless advocates just can't do it without a permit. Allebaugh says the law followed complaints about increasing drug use, vandalism, public urination and violence.

Ms. ALLEBAUGH: Just like we regulate garage sales, it's in the interest of public safety that we know when these large group feedings are happening because of influx of people in the park. One for public safety, as well as other things, the sanitary issues, increasing trash receptacles or things like that.

JONES: But Maria Foscarinis says these anti-feeding laws are just one more way for public officials to criminalize being homeless. She directs the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C.

Ms. MARIA FOSCARINIS (Director, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty): I mean, these ordinances are talking about offering food twice a year. I mean, are people supposed to eat twice a year?

JONES: Civil rights and advocacy groups are challenging the laws wherever they pop up. But Las Vegas' population just keeps on growing. And social service programs that already exist are often inundated. This afternoon, there's another feeding for the homeless taking place. This time, it's for 40 students at Hardy Elementary School.

Unidentified Child: (unintelligible) I don't feel like having three (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: All right, what else?

JONES: It's the last day of an after-school touring program at Hardy, exclusively for homeless kids. They're celebrating with gooey ice cream sundaes. School officials designed the program as a haven of sorts, where homeless kids could catch up on their studies and avoid being teased. Myra Berkovits directs the Homeless Services Program for Clark County Nevada schools. She's held that job since 2000, when there were 1,200 homeless students in the district.

Ms. MYRA BERKOVITS (Director, Homeless Services Program, Clark County, Nevada): We're now at 3,000 children. Last year, at the end of July, we were at 3,700 children. I'm projecting that we'll be over 4,000 children this year.

JONES: There're kids like 11-year-old Melissa. The school district wouldn't allow us to use her last name. She says she wants to be a lawyer when she grows up, but she doesn't know what kind. Melissa just knows she wants to earn a lot of money.

MELISSA: Because when you have money, like if something happens to you, you can like go to the hospital. If you need like a surgery, that's really like expensive, you will have the money.

JONES: Melissa says she knows money can't solve everything. But she says sometimes just having enough makes all the difference.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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